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In-Depth: COVID-19 pandemic raises child abuse concerns

Decrease in calls is troubling trend to experts
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Posted at 10:58 AM, Oct 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-01 14:15:09-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The coronavirus pandemic has put extra pressure and stress on families across San Diego. Now, experts worry that could be leading to a rise in child abuse.

"It's extraordinarily troubling," says Dr. Shalon Nienow, the Child Abuse Pediatrics Program's Clinical Director at Rady Children's Hospital's Chadwick Center.

"Since we started the pandemic, our volume has increased," Dr. Nienow says, noting that outpatient services are up 82% and inpatient treatment is up 75% since mid-March.

Studies over the last decade have shown that economic struggles often lead to increases in child abuse. Nienow believes the Pandemic coupled with the economic downturn, has made it worse.

"People are isolated," Dr. Nienow says. "They don't have access to support services, and they're forced to take on roles they're not prepared for, such as being a teacher."

The increased instances of child abuse and maltreatment may not be purely physical. San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan says her office has seen a dramatic increase in internet crimes against children during the pandemic. She says the amount has quadrupled since March.

"Kids are at home, they're on their tablets," Stephan explains. "On the internet, the predatory behavior of people trying to sexually exploit and recruit and get our kids to go into harm's way is really exploding... There is a direct correlation between kids being at home, out of school, out of their sports, and the increase of predatory and abusive crimes against them."

Making matters worse, says Stephan and Dr. Nienow, is that the number of calls and reports of child abuse to Child Welfare Services has dropped dramatically since March.

An ABC 10News Investigation in early April showed a nearly 60% drop in calls to CWS at the start of the pandemic. The county says now they're still seeing a 30% drop.

In 2019, CWS fielded around 27,000 calls from April through August. In 2020, CWS took only approximately 19,000 calls.

"We certainly know families have more needs now than ever before and are struggling with all of the effects from the pandemic," says Dr. Kimberly Giardina, the Director of San Diego County Child Welfare Services.

Experts believe the drop in calls is because kids are spending less time around teachers and doctors, who are legally required to report any signs of abuse they see.

"They tend to be a significant safety net for kids, and now that safety net is somewhat gone," says Dr. Nienow.

"Our teachers and counselors are the eyes and ears," adds Stephan. "They are the Safe Harbor."

In their absence, the County and DA's office has launched training programs, which teach people how to recognize signs of abuse during online interactions like Zoom classes or telehealth visits. The county also authorized $2 million in CARES Act funding to pay for community outreach and education.

Stephan also sent a 7-page letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, detailing the scope of the problem. She asked him to take it into account when deciding whether or not to let schools reopen for in-person learning.

"I felt a responsibility that these alarming statistics become part of that conversation because the health of our kids and their safety has to be paramount," says Stephan.

Dr. Giardina says Child Welfare Services is also working hard to make sure kids are safe. Their employees follow up on every call they receive and found ways to conduct in-person visits during the pandemic safely.

"We are out there," she says. "Our staff are working hard every day to make sure that those kids are safe."

Experts all say it has become critical for parents, other family members, and neighbors to report any signs of abuse they see.

"Educate yourself," says Stephan. "Educate your children so that they can remain safe while we wait for our life to go back to normal and for kids to go back to school and to the safety of having those mandatory reporters."

"It takes a village to raise healthy kids," says Dr. Nienow. "Especially now, when people are expected to deal with different stressors in their life, providing support to those families is really important."

For more information, or to report suspected child abuse, call the County Hotline at 858-560-2191. You can also call 211.

Within the state of California, you can call toll free, 1-800-344-6000.